Why the Microsoft Surface Duo is a big deal

In early October 2019, Microsoft borrowed a page from Apple’s keynote playbook and gave us a “one more thing” that nobody expected: a dual-screen Android-powered smartphone. Microsoft announced its return to the smartphone market with the Surface Duo (although they officially said “it’s not a smartphone, it’s a Surface”).

The reveal was surprising given that this is the first Android device ever produced by the software giant. It is not supposed to go on sale until late 2020, but the few minutes of footage that were shown mean a big deal for Microsoft. Here’s why.

A user receiving a phone call on the Surface Duo

With the Duo, Microsoft is giving up on Windows for mobile phones, but this is actually a good thing. Windows Phone failed due to the fierce competition in the app marketplace and the lack of space for a third contender. Users proved that apps can make or break an operating system, and a phone maker alongside it. By adopting Android, this problem goes away, and Microsoft can focus on releasing a device that has a unique user experience and that sells with Office, Outlook, Skype, Bing and other first-party services preinstalled.

The Surface Duo runs what looks like a modified version of Android that provides new and exciting use cases. Its portable design unfolds to discover two screens that can behave as one, and that makes using a small device feel closer to a tablet.

A user typing on the Surface Duo

Tech companies are scrambling to get foldable devices right, and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold mishaps show that it’s going to be a bumpy road. Glass doesn’t bend, and flexible plastic is not strong enough to protect a capacitive screen. How will the tech industry fix this foldable dilemma? Microsoft showed a solution that might actually be more reliable and usable than any other foldable device has proven to be so far. Sure, one big foldable screen means more real estate than two independent screens connected by a thin hinge, but other than watching a movie or playing a game, is there any use case where the dual-screen option is significantly worse?

Until foldable screens are sturdy enough to be handled without requiring multiple safety notices against pressure, devices like the Surface Duo can bridge the gap and offer similar customer value without most of the shortcomings. I’m actually surprised by the timing of the announcement; will other competitors use the year ahead to ensure the Surface Duo is born dead? Will Apple or Google release any kind of foldable or dual-screen device before the public can get their hands on the Duo? It was a risky move to show device so soon, and I can only assume Microsoft is trying to get early feedback from developers and critics to ensure they minimize the risk of another Windows Phone fiasco.

Making the announcement a full year ahead of its official release also means that Microsoft has time to improve the Duo. And judging from the presentation video, one-hand scenarios and getting quick glances of information are the areas that need more usability improvements. Assuming you don’t wear a smartwatch (and most people don’t), how many times do you tap on your phone without fully unlocking it just to check your notifications? How many times do you pick up a call with just one hand? The Surface Duo makes it impossible to perform any of those quick actions given the lack of an exterior screen; instead, customers need to unfold or open the device with both hands in order to see any notification. Hopefully, Microsoft will receive such feedback from its own testers and will have enough time to address this usability problem before the Duo gets released to the public.

Update, 8/12/2020: The Surface Duo became available for preorders in August 2020, starting at $1400. The first version was released without any of the usability improvements mentioned above. Read the official announcement here.

Nonetheless, the Duo is a critical test for Microsoft because it’s an opportunity to showcase what manufacturers can do combining Android and hardware. This is a good stopgap before folding screens become safe to use without fear of dust or debris breaking a $2000 device. And more importantly, this is a test for building a better user experience with software dominated by Google. The Duo’s operating system will be compatible with the Google Play store, which means access to the same apps that a Google Pixel 4 has. Will the Microsoft launcher seen in the announcement come to other single-screen Android devices? It will be exciting to see how Microsoft will work with an operating system that is not Windows… and I almost can’t believe I wrote those words!

If the Surface Duo fails, Microsoft can go back to ignoring smartphones, but I believe the device will actually kickstart a new segment of dual-screen devices that will become common in a few years. For Microsoft, the Surface Duo might be the equivalent to the Surface RT, a device that ends up being forgotten while simultaneously creating the next billion-dollar business for the Redmond giant.

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Images via Microsoft

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